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Feb. 1, 2014

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PITTSBURGH — On the bus ride in from the airport Saturday afternoon, members of the UVa men’s basketball team could look out at Heinz Field in the distance, prompting shouts of glee and hand-claps from assistant coach Jason Williford, a die-hard Steelers fan.

On this trip, though, the Cavaliers are more concerned with another local venue: the University of Pittsburgh’s Petersen Events Center. That’s where two of the ACC’s top teams will play on Super Bowl Sunday. At 12:30 p.m., Virginia (16-5, 7-1) meets Pitt (18-3, 6-2) in a game ESPNU will televise.

The Wahoos haven’t played in this city since Dec. 5, 1976, long before the Petersen Center was built. The `Hoos won’t get their first look at the 12,508-seat arena until late Sunday morning, but they’re already familiar with its reputation.

“It’s a tough place to play,” UVa big man Akil Mitchell said Saturday after practice at John Paul Jones Arena.

Pitt, ranked No. 18 in the latest Associated Press poll, is 12-1 at home this season. At Duke, the students at Cameron Indoor Stadium are known as the Cameron Crazies. Pitt’s student section calls itself the Oakland Zoo — a nod to the neighborhood in which the campus is located — and is loud and rowdy.

The Panthers haven’t played since Monday night, when Duke came into the Petersen Center and won 80-65.

“They’re going to be amped-up,” said Williford, whose mother’s family is from Pittsburgh. “I don’t think that game was a 15-point game. It was a close game with about five minutes to go. Duke made some unbelievable shots. Duke’s playing at a high level obviously right now. But Pitt will be amped-up. The Oakland Zoo will be amped-up. It’s going to be an atmosphere very similar to what Cameron’s like. We gotta put on our hard hats and go in there, and hopefully our game will travel.”

A victory would give the `Hoos their best ACC record after nine games since 1981-82, when they started 12-1 in conference play.

For Virginia’s senior starters, Mitchell and guard Joe Harris, this will be their first and last game at Pitt. But that’s not what makes this game so special to Mitchell.

“I think it’s more of a big deal because we know that they’re a good team, and it’s another opportunity [to beat a quality opponent], and it’s a tough place to play,” he said. “So that’ll be fun.”

Opponents have had little fun against the `Hoos recently. Since getting blown out at Tennessee on Dec. 30, Virginia has stumbled only once, in a four-point loss at Duke on Jan. 13. Each of the Cavaliers’ ACC victories has been by at least 12 points. UVa is coming off a 68-53 win over Notre Dame in South Bend.

“It’s a completely different team from the team that lost to Tennessee,” said Mitchell, who leads UVa in rebounding. “We’re enjoying the game, we’re having fun, and we’re doing it in a way that is the right way to play. There’s nothing better than that.”

Virginia is allowing only 56 points per game, the fewest in the nation, and opposing teams have come to dread facing UVa coach Tony Bennett’s Pack Line defense. They’re not the only ones.

“We don’t like going against it in practice,” Mitchell said, laughing. “It’s so tough. When we’re right, it’s just rugged. You don’t get anything easy, and we’re prepared for everything. It’s about being continuous.

“[Opposing players] are setting screens, and usually they’ll get stuff against other teams, but I feel like we’re so prepared for everything, we’re so continuous, that we just grind you down all game. That’s the way we play.”

Pitt has rarely had trouble scoring this season. Coach Jamie Dixon’s Panthers are shooting 48.5 percent from the floor and averaging 75.8 points. Their No. 1 threat is fifth-year senior Lamar Patterson, a 6-5, 225-pound forward who has emerged as a national-player-of-the-year candidate.

“He’s as complete a player, as good an offensive player, as we’ve seen,” said Williford, who prepared UVa’s scouting report on Pitt. “Not only scoring, but he gets guys involved.”

Patterson leads the Panthers in scoring (17.7 ppg) and assists (4.5 per game). He’s second in steals (1.6 per game) and third in rebounds (4.8 per game).

“He presents a lot of problems,” Williford said. “He’s a combination of [NC State star] T.J. Warren, because he can just go get a bucket, and a combination of [Green Bay star Keifer] Sykes, because he’s good with the ball. He assists. He can post. He can shoot the 3 from deep. He’s got an old man’s kind of game.”

Mitchell, who starts at power forward, is athletic enough to cover smaller, quicker players, and he may be matched up with Patterson at times. More often, though, that assignment will fall to the 6-6 Harris, 6-5 redshirt sophomore Malcolm Brogdon or 6-6 sophomore Justin Anderson.

“We’re just going to have to keep taking turns,” Williford said, “and those guys are going to have to do what they’ve done all year.”

No single player makes UVa formidable on defense. Against elite scorers such as Patterson, Mitchell said, “guys are going to get broken down. It happens, especially against good players like that, but it’s a collective thing, when we’re packing, helping and stopping guys from getting to the paint, stopping guys from being in rhythm on ball screens. It’s an entire team effort.”

Patterson isn’t the Panthers’ only weapon. Another fifth-year senior, 6-9, 230-pound Talib Zanna, averages 13.5 points and 8.0 rebounds. For the season, the Panthers are averaging nearly nine more rebounds per game than their opponents.

“It’s gonna be a war on the boards,” Bennett told his players during an intense practice Friday at JPJ. “This is where the game’s won or lost. This is the difference.”

In point guard London Perrantes, UVa has one of the ACC’s top freshmen. His Pitt counterpart is a player the Cavaliers’ coaches know well.

James Robinson, a 6-3, 200-pound sophomore, starred for the storied program at DeMatha Catholic High in Hyattsville, Md. He chose Pitt over UVa and Notre Dame in August 2011.

“We wanted him,” Williford said. “We loved him.”

Robinson averages 8.4 points and has 88 assists and only 18 turnovers. His assist-to-turnover ratio (4.9) leads the nation.

“He’s a heck of a ballplayer,” Williford said, smiling, “but he’s got on the wrong colors come Sunday, so we’re going after him.”

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